May 11, 2005

When secrets can be deadly

San Francisco Chronicle

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

ASSEMBLYWOMAN Fran Pavley's AB1700 is the type of legislation that would pass overwhelmingly if politicians were convinced their constituents were paying attention to this one. But with hundreds of bills moving in the pipeline -- and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger dominating the spotlight these days -- Pavley's bill may be in real danger of getting killed by corporate lobbyists who are trying to protect their clients' ability to include sweeping confidentiality clauses in lawsuit settlements.

Pavley, an Agoura Hills Democrat, has authored the latest attempt to prohibit settlements that conceal a potential danger to the public -- such as a defective product, the presence of toxic waste or child molestation.

The argument for AB1700 is straightforward and compelling: The public's right to know about an enduring threat to our health and safety should override a defendant's right to make a lawsuit go away quietly.

There is a long and shameful list of secret settlements that left the public unaware of serious danger -- and resulted in more victims. For example:

-- Firestone tires. One of the most infamous examples of secret settlements, the problems with defective Firestone tires were kept quiet for years, even as the casualty count reached 150 deaths and 500 injuries. Some 6. 5 million tires were ultimately recalled in 2000.

-- Abusive priests. The Catholic Church routinely demanded -- and received -- confidentiality clauses as a condition of settlements of lawsuits against hundreds of priests who abused children and continued to serve in recent decades.

Posted by kshaw at May 11, 2005 11:17 AM